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Enough said, let’s make it right!

Earlier Published in Magazine Issue: Vol. : 09 No.- 09 November 6. 2015

Background

In the recorded history of Nepal, the Gorkha Earthquake was one of the devastating quakes hitting the country. Nearly 82 years after the mega earthquake of 1934 CE, Nepal was heavily shaken by the recent M 7.6 earthquake on Saturday, 25th April, 2015 at 11:56 NST and a major aftershock of M 6.8 on Tuesday, 12th May, 2015 at 12:50 NST. With the epicenters located in Gorkha and Dolakha districts respectively, the massive tremors were significantly felt as far as in China, India and Bangladesh.

The catastrophic earthquake and the following major aftershocks left around 9,000 dead, 23,000 injured and thousands homeless all over the country. The earthquakes affected almost one-third of the nation’s population in over 31 districts, out of which 14 were officially identified as the hardest hit.

Go-Bag

As people were traumatized and completely shaken by the first impact of the destructive earthquake on Saturday, 25th April, they were even more scared of the continuous tremors of aftershocks. Frightened to enter their own houses, a huge number of people absorbed in fear were scattered out in the open. In the event of such chaos or probably even worse in the future, you may not have time to search for the critical supplies or go looking for them in shops.

Amidst complete destruction, since the rescue or relief workers may not be on the scene for some time and it could be hours before you get help from outside your community, the need for an emergency kit arises. The kit basically is a collection of essential items you or your household may need to cope after a disaster of such magnitude. Make it simpler and call it a ‘Go Bag’ if you like.

More simplistically put, let’s recall the moments after the first tremor on 25th April 2015; what could be the critical items that we would need to spend a few nights out in the open? Although basic supplies required might be similar for all, there could be many different preferences or needs depending on the individual or the family. If you really think, you will realize that the ‘Go Bag’ is the most customizable emergency kit that we could build on our own. Ultimately, it is not about the shape, size or color of the bag but the contents, we think are critical and must be stored inside it.

Recalling the immediate moments after the major shaking of 25th April, Ms. Sita Shrestha a resident of Thankot, Chandragiri Municipality said “As soon as the shaking stopped, I took my son and daughter out of the house along with our Go-Bag”. She knew that Go-Bag was important but had never imagined that it could be so much useful under those chaotic circumstances. She further added “At the time, many items out of the Go-Bag were very useful such as radio, tarpaulin, blanket, soap, Dettol, medications, torch-light, tooth pastes and even playing cards”. She was happy that playing cards kept the young boys awake in the nights which was good for the safety of the area. “This single Go Bag, I had stored, had been so useful to many of us. I thought what if everyone had their own Go Bag?” asked Sita rhetorically.

Go-Bag: Points to ponder            

First of all, maintaining a ‘Go Bag’ is not a rule rather a moral responsibility towards one’s own safety. Secondly, a disaster such as an earthquake can strike any time. Thirdly, this is about exercising one of the best known practices in the world to get prepared for a disaster that can create havoc in no time. People may argue that the concept is purely western and the luxury of a ‘Go Bag’ does not gel with our culture. You may ask “What good a ‘Go Bag’ alone could bring when my house just turned into rubble?” Of course you cannot save the world with a ‘Go Bag’ but it certainly can keep you safe and thus help save your family or neighbors in those critical hours of extreme need.

We need to understand the fact that ‘life-or-death’ situation is same everywhere irrespective of one’s culture or social background. In the event of turmoil, three seconds without hope, three minutes without air, three hours in extreme temperature, three days without water and three weeks without food are the acute conditions which can threaten anyone’s life no matter which corner of the world one belongs to. Therefore, in the event of a massive disaster such as the recent Gorkha earthquake, ‘Go Bag’ can really be a life-saver and thus tagging ‘Go Bag’ a mere luxury might just be a reflection of our own ignorance towards inevitable disasters that sometimes can kill us.

Drop, Cover & Hold on (DCH)

By now, it is a well-known fact that the shaking of earthquake itself does not injure rather the objects that the earthquake puts into motion are scary and harmful. Anything that can fall, move or break can be an earthquake hazard. If inside a building, upstairs and away from the exit door, “Drop, Cover and Hold On” (DCH). If outside or close to an exit door, find an open space outside and stay away from large falling objects. Imported from the west, although the DCH recipe may not exactly rhyme with our socio-cultural backdrop, the concept clearly holds its ground worldwide with scientifically researched facts.

Looking back into the past, we find that our forefathers responded to earthquakes by immediately dropping down and maintaining the duck-posture by pressing the ground with both hands. As big earthquakes strike after long intervals, the knowledge went into oblivion and was not appreciated enough by its own people.

Mr. Hariman Singh Dangol, who lives nearby the renowned Nuwakot Palace in Nuwakot District, is an elderly local priest at the Bhairavi Temple close to the palace. Recalling the learnings from his old folks, Mr. Dangol actively demonstrated his earthquake-safe behavior that he applied inside the temple when the ground started shaking on that fateful day of the Gorkha Earthquake.

Not very long ago in the US, the space under the doorway was considered safer during an earthquake as adobe buildings would crumble, leaving only the doorways standing. Later, as the living standard of the people and the structural safety of the buildings progressed, the level of risk tolerance diminished greatly. Nowadays, when the building structures are built stronger, people are advised to stay away from the doorways to avoid the risk of jamming their fingers.

Here, it is important to note that over a long period of time, as technology evolves, the risk and the safety behavior also changes or improves along with it. Looking forward in Nepalese context, as pursued by many earthquake prone countries around the globe, we could either use light materials to build our houses or make earthquake resistant structures to withstand earthquake shakings. Both are major preconditions which can set ground for successful DCH practice.

Manoj Tamang, a local resident of Laharepauwa VDC in Rasuwa District, mentioned that his younger brother was studying in the ground floor of a two-story house on the day of the Gorkha Earthquake. “He could run and go out but he chose to go under the bed during the earthquake; he learned this at his school” said Manoj painfully. On that day, Manoj lost his brother to the quake as the house collapsed and crushed the bed.

From Bidur Municipality-3 in Nuwakot District, Ms. Samita Dangol, a local shopkeeper, revealed her brave story and how she was able to rescue her two younger sisters even after the two-story house collapsed miserably. “The two school girls saved their lives taking shelter under the bed on the 2nd floor. This wouldn’t be possible if the bed was fragile or box-type” said Samita convincingly.

DCH: Points to ponder

In the aftermath of the Gorkha Earthquake and the controversy around DCH practice, it is quite relevant to mention two critically salient factors that influence people to do what they do during an earthquake as far as DCH is concerned. Firstly, the process of knowledge dissemination and secondly, the human psychology while implementing the acquired knowledge.

While some were able to save their lives, It is unfortunate that many school children, had to lose their lives to one of the world’s best known practices during an earthquake i.e. DCH. People might be clear in their head about the literal meaning of DCH but do they really know why, where, when or under what other circumstances they should or should not perform it? In another words have people been taught DCH effectively? The action of DCH takes several factors into consideration such as the strength of building, infrastructures & non-structural items, the number of people inside the building or room, number of floors in the building, proximity of exit doors, etc.

Spreading DCH information may be one part of the story while grasping or internalizing the same by the listeners or learners may be completely different story, as far as an effective teaching methodology is discussed. Somewhere it seems, the teachers are missing the opportunity to verify or evaluate the actual learning or understanding of people who are loaded with DCH information. It is quite possible that the spreading of instructions might got limited to mere informing rather than teaching in real sense.

Our state of psyche greatly influences our immediate actions when something happens to us all of a sudden. During a surprise event our subconscious mind is more reactive than our conscious mind such as jamming the car brakes when someone suddenly appears in front of our vehicle. In this regard, earthquake is no exception and can occur when we least expect it.

This is the reason behind encouraging and conducting frequent earthquake drills in offices, organizations, factories and schools. After repeated practice drills, it is expected that earthquake safe behavior gets implanted into people’s subconscious so they would know exactly what to do when the ground really starts shaking next time.

Here, we should keep in mind that child psychology is different from that of adults. Children often think straight forward and take directions literally. Since young children need clear instructions to perform a task adequately, the DCH teaching methodology for this age group might be different than that for adults. Again, as discussed earlier, effective teaching would often include all three components; informing, learning as well as evaluating or verifying.

Final thoughts:

Even if we have the right knowledge, we might need customization time-to-time to suit our existing socio-economic environment. Although DCH methodology has numerous scientific theories and data to back it up internationally, in the coming days, we could sincerely direct our research to investigate the feasibility of DCH or such in our own soil. The outcome would then demonstrate the validity by developing suitable methodology to address the issues pertaining to our knowledge dissemination process, psychology of learning as well as infrastructures that surround us.

In future, we would need to devise better and more improved techniques of disaster preparedness to suit our social, cultural and economic conditionings we inherit. As we evolve in this direction, we might be able to think beyond ‘Go Bag’ or ‘DCH’, inventing more socially inclusive disaster preparedness model which would be able to address the needs of our elderly, children, differently abled and the community as a whole. However, in the meantime, we cannot afford to just sit there and disregard some good ideas just because it originated somewhere in the west and not in the east.

Earlier Published in Magazine Issue: Vol. : 09 No.- 09 November 6. 2015

Bangladesh, Rana Plaza Collapse….

Earlier Published in Magazine Issue: Vol. : 08 No.- 18 March. 20 – 2015 (chaitra 6, 2071)

Background

Last April 2014, the sandwich collapse of Rana Plaza garment factory complex in the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh marked its one year anniversary with commemoration and protest for compensation and safer working condition for the workers. The deadliest industrial accident in the history of Bangladesh claimed nearly 1,138 lives and yet more than 2,000 were left seriously injured or disabled. International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that some $40 million needed to compensate the families and disabled garment workers.

Similar industrial accidents had happened in Bangladesh in the past but probably were not loud enough to register a wakeup call for the government or the concerned authorities. Most importantly, the Rana Plaza disaster could have been predicted, prevented or well-responded had they adequate safety and disaster risk reduction measures in place.

Better late than never, the Rana Plaza garment factory debacle brought about massive movements for similar industries to sign up for the newly implemented  Bangladesh fire and building safety accord. Although some progress have been made since, there still remains several unresolved issues such as lack of full implementation of newly-legislated labor laws, absence of a comprehensive building safety inspection process, and inadequate arrangements to compensate the victims of industrial accidents. There are lots of fire and building safety issues which still need to be addressed to comply with the accord.

Immediately after the disaster some key garment buyers and international retailers withdrew from Bangladesh while others responded with an objective of improving the factory condition including building infrastructure, fire safety and working conditions of the workers. At the time, there were about 30 major foreign retail brands which were supplied by more than 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh.

It was sad to see that, in the wake of the disaster, only half of the retail brands came forward to compensate the family and the injured workers as part of their so-called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activity. The other half probably wanted cheap clothes at the expense of safe working condition and wellbeing of the workers in Bangladesh. This could be a classic example of 21st century slavery where labors in developing countries are enslaved by affluent business societies around the globe.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Businesses need to understand that the social responsibility of private sector goes beyond the day-to-day operation of producing efficient products and services for customers. The CSR of a company is not concerned just with its clients, suppliers, employees and shareholders but also with communities and other downstream stakeholders who take an interest in the behavior of the company. Sometimes private businesses are so busy making money they forget to see the complete picture and misinterpret CSR as mere charity works in bits and pieces. Of course there are short term benefits associated to these philanthropic activities to both business houses as well as communities but the targeted social and business impact gets diluted as often budget is limited and not sustainable for the desired cause.

Businesses definitely need to rise above the charity and the compliance requirements set by the government or international bodies and work on building a solid & sustainable platform where private sectors, communities and stakeholders can come together for shared values and wellbeing of people & environment as a whole. CSR can bring fundamental value to the private companies only if they learn to incorporate it into their growth strategy and sustainable business model.

Business Threats

As per Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), foreign buyers cancelled orders worth USD 110 million from 37 factories in 2014. The number of new ready-made garment factories also declined from 113 in fiscal year 2012-2013 to 65 in fiscal year 2013-2014.

On one hand Bangladesh has this immense need to address its existing safety and disaster preparedness issues such as fire and building safety accord while on the other it has more immediate challenge to quickly restore confidence of the foreign retailers so that the garment business continues with minimal disruption.

Although identifying and fixing structural flaws of other similar business complexes, developing emergency preparedness & response plans and establishing proactive safety management system within private businesses will definitely take some time, Bangladesh cannot afford to lose its foreign retailers by not meeting the basic safety requirements just now. The country and the private sector need to move together and faster if they want to recover and restore the garment businesses as ethics, brand image and consumer awareness are rapidly becoming the competitive grounds for the growth of any organization.

Further delaying and not meeting the basic safety standards might signal the international market or retailer brands to diversify to other countries which can provide with private businesses which are safety compliant, better prepared to face such disasters, have capabilities to respond to such emergencies and are well equipped to quickly recover from the tragedy.

Disaster Risk Management (DRM) & Business Continuity Plan (BCP)

When a disaster like this (collapse of Rana Plaza) occurs, the entire business community including the supply chain might go frantic, not sure what to do next. Now, let’s imagine the extent of  multiplying impact when a disaster like this replicates many times over in the event of a massive disaster, say earthquake which indeed is looming over us as one of the greatest risks.

When the scale of disaster is enormous, even the government and outside agencies become helpless in supporting the private companies before it is too late. According to the Insurance Information Institute, USA, up to 40% of businesses affected by a natural or man-made disaster never reopen.

After a disaster, companies would get under great pressure while managing activities related to emergency response, disaster recovery and finally continuing the business as usual. Unless these companies are prepared with adequate contingency plans guided by Disaster Risk Management (DRM) principles, it is hard to visualize their continued operation in the post-disaster scenario.

During such crisis, the most urgent need of businesses would be to quickly respond to the emergency (saving lives & property) and secondly, to recover its operational activities (becoming functional & continuing business as usual) at the earliest. Hence, arises the need for a comprehensive Business Continuity Plan (BCP).

BCP of an organization presents a holistic management approach which ensures that critical business functions will remain operational and the disaster recovery will be handled in a timely manner with minimal interruption. An effective BCP aligns with the overall DRM and CSR strategies, if an organization is willing to envision its long-term security, creative business leap and opportunities for growth.

BC Planning is a capability building process for an effective execution of risk reduction, emergency response and disaster recovery plans of any organization.Long-term sustainability of businesses depends on various stakeholders including employees, their families, shareholders, communities, suppliers, customers, government, media and other support groups. During an emergency, it might be overwhelming to manage them all and make quick decisions, especially when a great deal of money is involved. Therefore, BCP, a proactively thought-out procedure, can help a business to swiftly manage its resources as well as supports from other stakeholders.

Having a closer look at the increasing number of natural, human-induced or technological disasters these days, the need for BCP is aptly justified for any small, medium or large scale organization. Developing a BCP will improve the likelihood that businesses/industries will not only survive and recover themselves, but will also help their neighbors, communities and the entire country to recover more quickly.

Strategically planned companies would first invest in BCP to build their disaster resilience which in turn would enable them to continue their CSR efforts in the event of a catastrophic disaster. At the same time, BC Planning itself could be a significant part of CSR building process for any organization that is truly responsible to its employees, communities and customers. If an organization’s vision is well aligned with its DRM objectives and CSR values, business continuity planning is bound to happen in that organization.

Lesson to Learn                     

The collapse of Rana Plaza building served a lesson to Bangladesh. It has woken up a great number of private sectors, government bodies, employees, stakeholders and other groups from in and outside the country.

Considering the parallel in demography, infrastructure, government policies, business culture and the level of preparedness for disaster, it really brings us closer to the Rana Plaza experience and provides a real-time lesson to learn from. In Nepalese context many small, medium and large businesses, with 70% public investment in them, hold up the backbone of the country’s economy.

Therefore, developing BCP could prove to be the right foot forward by the private businesses. In order to support strategic DRM needs and sustainable CSR values of a company, BCP implementation could be a milestone initiative by the private businesses in Nepal. This certainly is a wake-up call to the government, private sector businesses and their stakeholders in Nepal.

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Earlier Published in Magazine Issue: Vol. : 08 No.- 18 March. 20 – 2015 (chaitra 6, 2071)